Lionfish: In Hot Water

When I first saw it in 2005, it seemed like a fish with a crazy outfit; in an aquarium containing only water and an imitation cave, the lionfish wore its extravagant red-and-white stripes, prominent spines, and enormous eyes that stared straight at me.

Two years later, the information came in almost daily. By 2007, the lionfish (Pterois sp.) invaded the waters of the Caribbean. Its origin was the Indopacific; its use in aquariums was the cause of its presence in waters outside its normal distribution.

Maricarmen uses her Hawaiian sling to remove a lionfish from the mangrove.

Maricarmen uses her Hawaiian sling to remove a lionfish from the mangrove.

In February 2009, marine protected area managers got together, urged on by my colleague and friend Ricardo Gómez Lozano, to hear a talk about lionfish by Dr. Tom Morris of NOAA and create the Mexico Early Alert Program to handle the lionfish invasion.

Since that date, I have been strongly committed to this topic; in fact, my doctoral thesis is about lionfish behavior and how to use it to control the species in the Mexican Caribbean.

The strategy that we developed and that I have applied in the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, the Xcalak Reefs National Park, and Mahahual focuses on:

  1. Information-sharing: We have reached more than 1,500 people by giving talks about lionfish to fishers, divers, tourism service providers, restaurant owners, researchers, hotel owners, and the general public. We discuss its natural history, its unfortunate arrival after hurricane Andrew in Florida, its impact on the reef due to its voracity, wide distribution, and ease of reproduction, and its system of poisonous spines, which discourages even the most daring divers from catching it without knowing how. We discuss the cure for lionfish stings (hot water), and finally we mention that its meat is edible and has high protein content. Once the audience is informed, we move on to…
  2. Training for capture: to do this, we have organized three scientific diving courses in Chinchorro focused on lionfish control. After training, we move on to…
  3. Capture, through tournaments with sport fishers or campaigns with fishers and service providers. So far, we have held more than 30 events.
  4. With researchers we have done campaigns to learn about the lionfish’s space-time distribution, population, diet, genetics, ecology, and behavior. So far four theses and at least three scientific publications have come out of this work.
  5. There have also been festivals and culinary events where chefs from Mahahual, Chetumal, Xcalak, Cozumel, Calderitas, and Mexico City have delighted us with a variety of recipes, from classic ceviche to lionfish pibil or Xcalacoco, a healthy and delicious dish.
  6. We have promoted the creation of crafts made from its beautiful fins; its pointy spines become wonderful pendants, truly attention-getting.
Maricarmen removes a lionfish in the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve.

Maricarmen removes a lionfish in the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve.

Now I see the lionfish through new eyes. Although its negative impact is huge in some of the places it has invaded, like the Bahamas, in our Mexican Caribbean its presence has helped us to “get cracking,” be alert, be careful, respect nature, appreciate it, and have fun. It has taught us to work as a team for a common goal. Every time my Hawaiian sling hits a lionfish that crosses my path, I remember that it didn’t decide to live in our Caribbean waters, and I renew my commitment to avoid mistakes and continue creating a path of simple, fair, and accessible conservation.


Maricarmen Garcia


Watch CauseCentric Production’s short film, “Lionfish – Eradication and Lunch: MesoAmerican Reef Leadership Program – Part Three”, which highlights Maricarmen’s work!

Haga clic aquí para la versión en español.

©2015 CauseCentric Productions